Advent is underway, the season when Christians prepare themselves -- not their homes, their gift lists, or their holiday menus, but themselves --- for Christmas. Keeping one’s priorities straight is difficult enough in ordinary times, especially in the face of overwhelming cultural cues on gift-giving, shipping deadlines and budget-friendly feasts. But focusing on the state of my soul, my words, my actions, and my inaction during this time of pandemic and a problematic presidential transition, as the nation seems to splinter around me, is almost impossible. Recently I have been thinking about Watch Night, an old Christian custom that has been reclaimed several times over the past 500 years. Watch Night might be the best way to end 2020 and prepare for 2021.
In the fifteenth century, Christians in the Eastern European settlements of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic) were inspired by the words of Jan Hus, a Bohemian theologian and professor who criticized the Catholic Church sixty years before Martin Luther nailed his protests to a church door. Hus faulted the institutional church for selling papal indulgences and participating in unholy alliances with secular leaders. He was excommunicated in 1411, but popular support for his ideas grew. The church officially declared him a heretic in 1415, and he was burned at the stake by secular authorities. His ideas endured, however. In 1457, Moravian Christians, in something of a prophetic move (the official Protestant Reformation began in 1517), broke away from the Catholic Church and established a denomination that still exists today. The core of their faith is that accepting a particular doctrine or creed does not make one a Christian. More important is living one’s life according to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. And the point of their faith is to serve the poorest and most despised among us. The Morovian tradition included Watch Nights, or covenant renewal services. Often held on New Year’s Eve, Watch Nights were prayerful gatherings where the faithful assessed their lives over the past year and rededicated themselves to following Jesus’ example in the next one.
John Wesley, a more modern Christian reformer and a founder of the Methodist movement, encountered the Moravian Church in the 18th century. His journal from 1736-38 records their calm, cheerful, and selfless service of others living in poverty and suffering injustice. Wesley was so impressed with the Moravian covenant renewal service that he adopted the Watch Night principles and encouraged covenant renewal services within his tradition. Many Methodist Churches still hold them on New Year’s Eve.
Then on December 31, 1863, African Americans gathered in churches for a vigil the night before Abraham Lincoln was to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. As midnight approached, the faithful knelt in silence to pray. Known also as “Freedom’s Eve,” this rendering of Watch Night still is marked today because persistent racism still exacts a deadly toll on people of color.
This thumb-nail history of Watch Night reminds me of the need to rededicate myself to my faith, especially in these trying times. And, believing that saying or writing one’s intentions “out loud” is often a way to make sure they are carried out, I am telling you that this New Year’s Eve will find me alone at my kitchen table. I will light a candle and think about my failings: the anger I feel in the wake of the presidential election; the sorrow and resentment I wrestle with in this pandemic; my own racist thoughts, words and deeds; the privilege that I struggle with; my fears for the future that keep me from being more generous; and my unrelenting critique of the church that has, too often, subverted my faith in Jesus Christ. I have also decided to re-read the Gospel of Mark all at once. Mark was the earliest gospel written -- the shortest one -- and was, scholars think, intended to be heard or read in a single sitting. I will pray for strength to begin again in the New Year. And I will ask God’s blessings on Moravians, Methodists, on all Black men, women and their families, and on all human beings, created, as we are, in the image of God.
May we all have a better year in 2021.